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The theatre of notes

By Stephen Hough

With performative nuances and provocative appeal, Western classical music has evolved into a complex experience of beauty and emotion

A concert is an occasion. It isn’t simply about playing music on stage. It is about atmosphere, the anticipation of the audience, the mood of the performer… it is about conjuring music like magic, rendering anew what was written many years ago. When a performer sits at the piano, or any other instrument, he/she takes up a magic wand. A sense of enchantment is vital for the performance to have any meaning at all. And this is ably aided by lighting, attire and also, gesture. Every physical act carried out on stage is a part of the artist’s performance. It should not, however, be a matter of self-conscious acting but in natural continuity to the piece to be performed. For instance, if I am to play a piece that begins with a very soft atmosphere, I would move slowly towards the keys. This would not be something I have decided in advance – it would be an organic outcome of my complete immersion in the melody.

The 20th century, in particular, brought about an enormous revolution in the way music was written and performed – a little bit like everything else at the time, from electricity and cars to medical advancement.
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Benjamin Britten, Leoš Janácek, Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and York Bowen have been tremendous sources of learning and inspiration along my musical journey. As time has passed, I have realised that Western classical music has evolved greatly through the ages. The 20th century, in particular, brought about an enormous revolution in the way music was written and performed – a little bit like everything else at the time, from electricity and cars to medical advancement. I have sometimes wondered if this evolution has occurred in a manner that has made classical music even farther removed from popular music. It is unfortunate that this divide exists, but I suppose it is inevitable. Classical music has grown more and more complex as time has passed, while popular music has been inclined towards appealing to an ever larger audience. All music is a work in progress, however, so the twain might meet someday, perhaps.


When I write music, my intention is neither to be complex nor to reach a wider audience. From the first notes I ever wrote to my most recent piece, Dappled Things, my aim has always been to appeal to the head and the heart. In fact, this is true even for when I am playing music written by someone else. I enjoy music that challenges me, but I love music that touches me, as well as the audience, emotionally. Whether it is in the backseat of a taxi somewhere in a distant land or along a sidewalk in the street outside my home, I have found music that has moved and inspired me in the unlikeliest of places. This is also why my musical education is always ongoing – I learn something new everyday!


Dappled Things is a song cycle that involves the baritone and piano, and a setting of six English poems – three by Oscar Wilde and three by Gerard Manley Hopkins. While the two of them might seem unlikely fellows, they connect in more ways than most of us imagine. Contemporaries in the late 19th century, both were acutely sensitive to physical beauty, had a youthful fascination for Roman Catholicism and passed away in their mid-40s. But it is the polarities that fascinate me more. Wilde, the darling of London society and considered one of the most brilliant literary figures of his time, was a witty concoctor of epigrams and died a martyr to Victorian morality. Hopkins, on the other hand, was an unknown, unpublished priest who has only now been recognised as one of the greatest and most original poets of the 19th century. In my piece,

I have set their poems within two of Hopkins’ greatest works from Terrible Sonnets as bookends. The cycle begins with the words, “I wake” and ends with the phrase, “each day dies with sleep”. A descent into desolation is not the end, however, because the piano, in a Schumannesque coda, weaves a long passage of consolation based on the first song’s opening melody. The final Hopkins poem, Glory be to God for dappled things, gives the cycle its name. It is about things which are outside the norm and defy convention, embodying nature’s oblivion to man’s rules and presumptions. Here, the piano flits from the naive and the whimsical to the droll.


I believe that today, one must not undersell Western classical music. It really is not easy to sit through an entire concert sometimes, but I think this is an advantage especially in terms of the young generation. The modern youth don’t want to be spoon-fed like naive infants. They crave challenges – which is the tallest mountain, what is the most difficult book, which is the hottest curry? They seek that which stimulates and provokes, and classical music can do this to perfection.


Playing a piece by an iconic composer like Beethoven, Robert Schumann or Debussy brings its own set of challenges to the table. I would never add new notes to a great classic, but no matter how familiar a piece is, I feel that I must feel – while playing it – as though I am creating something new. This is perhaps the difference between classical music and jazz. In jazz, that which is improvised sounds like it was a part of the piece that was originally written; in classical music, the attempt is to make that which was originally written sound as though it has been improvised. As a pianist I know that every note and every marking in a Beethoven piece has a purpose. I see his mind in his musical notation, and my task is to capture that thought process as well as emotional movement in my rendition.


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